'This is Britain' – British cultural propaganda films of the 1930s-1940s, their creation, and their far-reaching global legacy

Sarah Cole

Playlists: 'emf2022' videos starting here / audio

In 1939 World War 2 started and the British Council—Britain's shiny new organisation for overseas cultural relations and propaganda—inherited the suddenly-closed tourist board's film-making department. Tourism films are no use in a war, so the Council turned their topics towards more cultural content as a softer kind of propaganda. Thus began a decade of film production that would have phenomenal overseas impact but be almost totally forgotten in Britain.

Between 1940–1950, the British Council produced over 120 short documentary-style films about life in Britain covering sports, manufacturing, landscapes, art, architecture, public healthcare, the justice system, democratic process, public institutions like the National Trust and the BBC, and more besides.
A far cry from the Ministry of Information's rigid style, this collection features some of the earliest works by winning cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret, Superman), and Jack Cardiff (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes).

Distributed to over 100 countries worldwide, the films are stunning, dated, funny, and bizarre by turn. They depict beautiful countrysides, optimistic cities, strong industry, forward-thinking social structures, and hardworking, happy people. They depict exactly the popular image of 1940s Britain that persists to this day...
That may not be a coincidence.

In this talk I'll cover the history and development of this film collection, how it was shaped, who saw the films, their staggering success, and their untold global legacy.